‘I am not Rambo or Indiana Jones’ | Anjan Sundaram, author of ‘Breakup’, on war-reporting and the toll it has taken on his marriage

Updated - January 18, 2024 02:11 pm IST

Published - September 15, 2023 11:56 am IST

Author Anjan Sundaram

Author Anjan Sundaram

In 2013, after nearly a decade of writing about conflicts in the African continent, Anjan Sundaram and his wife, Nat, who also previously worked as a radio correspondent in Congo and Rwanda, nest down in her hometown, a remote Canadian coastal settlement called Shippagan, and have a baby. 

Around the time, the “most isolated major war in the world was underway in the Central African Republic” (CAR). Sundaram is keen to go and cover the war, even though it is a difficult sell to newspaper editors. He teams up with a friend, Lewis Mudge, who works with Human Rights Watch and with his wife’s help and support, finds his way to this remote corner of the world.

Even as he delves deeper into the conflict zone, finding himself in extremely dangerous situations, he can sense the distance that is building with his wife. Sundaram’s latest book, Breakup: A Marriage in Wartime, is an account of these two conflicts.

I speak to Sundaram on a video call, catching him in Montreal where he is visiting his now 10-year-old daughter. Over the sound of rolling trucks and a city waking up, I jump right into it, getting my provocative question out of the way first. Edited excerpts:

The work is, really, about the conflict in CAR and your reportage of the events there, bookended by accounts of your marriage before and after the journey. Did you use the break-up of your marriage to write about the conflict in a little-known part of the world?

(Laughs) No, all my books are memoirs. Initially, I wrote it as a letter to my daughter. When my marriage ended, the connection with my daughter was the hardest to bridge. I wanted to write this book as a letter to her to re-make that connection, but that didn’t quite work because you can’t write a war story to a kid. She was too young.

This is the most personal of my three books. People usually shy away from writing about their break-ups; especially war correspondents, humanitarian workers and frontline workers. Journalists are trained to turn the camera on the world and not on themselves. It is very intimate because very few journalists have written about how war takes a toll on your personal relationships. But my story is not unique. Janine di Giovanni has written about it, but I guess among men it is less common. It’s a macho culture and we are trained to say we are tough. 

During your time in CAR, you came close to being killed twice. Did that make you regret going on this trip?

Armed rebel groups patrol a village in the Central African Republic, January 2021.

Armed rebel groups patrol a village in the Central African Republic, January 2021. | Photo Credit: AFP via Getty Images

When you are making these journeys you are always wondering when you should turn back. I don’t ever think I shouldn’t have gone on the trip, but I always wonder whether I should press forward or turn back. The idea of home is very important because you have somewhere to turn back to. My wife was a war correspondent, so she knew the conditions I was working in. Most often, she’d say, ‘You’re fine, carry on.’ When travelling through wars, you have to be very humble because the situation turns very quickly. I am always asking local people, and if they say ‘we don’t know what the situation is’ or ‘we wouldn’t go forward’, I try to listen to them. They know the dynamics in their area and I am an outsider. So I can’t be cavalier, I am not Rambo or Indiana Jones. I wouldn’t say ‘I wished I hadn’t gone’ because there is a real sense of purpose on these trips.

What draws you to these conflicts? 

I feel like I have to go and bear witness. Witnesses, just by their presence, can record, document and honour what happened and also in some ways prevent future bursts of violence. When a journalist is present, the perpetrators feel they are watched and so it builds a sense of restraint. Journalistically, that is the purpose of covering these conflicts. And in a literary sense, too, things have to be recorded. The last mainstream book of this country was written almost 100 years ago. In publishing this book, the challenge was to extend the boundaries of literature. All the editors I spoke to around the world came back and said they couldn’t justify this, that there was no market for this country. Literature is very inward-looking in a sense. But the editors who eventually published it, saw the literary value in it and convinced their team. It was a hard book to publish; but that was part of the challenge and part of the appeal to me. I feel like I am doing something worthwhile.

How do you rationalise the utter callousness the rest of the world has to lives lost in these remote conflicts? You write about spending a night in the town of Bouca, where people were expecting to get massacred the following day. Your life and theirs were saved because Mudge manages to call New York for diplomatic intervention. Bouca’s residents’ lives are saved because, well, a white man’s life needed to be saved.

Judith Butler has written about it. She calls it the grievability of lives. That some lives are more grievable than others. That’s the best intellectual framing of it. It is coloniality, it is racism. But it is not just the West. We place a big burden on the West because of their colonial history. India is rising, India has a lot of wealthy conglomerates and media houses. Why doesn’t India invest in Africa? We have a long history with the continent, we have had trade for more than a hundred years. Yet, we don’t develop this relationship in any meaningful way. Even places nearby — I was in Cambodia, I was in Myanmar, I didn’t encounter any Indian journalists in these places. News from Cambodia comes to India via New York. I feel countries like India need to be more interested in the regions around it, too. 

A family of Central African refugees on their way to board a flight home from the Democratic Republic of Congo in November 2021.

A family of Central African refugees on their way to board a flight home from the Democratic Republic of Congo in November 2021. | Photo Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The book is written in sparse prose. How difficult is the process of looking at a situation in which you are a character as well as a reporter?

At the time of living it, I was not reporting on my marriage. One consequence of personal reportage is that it helps me process what happened. The dissolution of the marriage and my reporting were equally devastating. It was a kind of therapy to write about myself from the outside. I only realised this recently. It allowed me to process things better. Some of the dispassionate tone might come from the difficulty of what I experienced. The thing that was hardest was to write about the beauty of the marriage without feeling resentful. In all my three books, the narrative determined the tone. My Congo book was more expressive because the Congolese are expressive. In Rwanda, I didn’t allow myself any flourishes because I was writing about a country in which free speech was repressed. Tone is always what comes last to me.

The story of CAR and your marriage unfolded about 10 years ago. Where are you in your head now?

I am in a good place. My daughter is 10. I am already making plans with her, to take her on a journey with me, maybe write a book about that. I finished this book during the pandemic. I am working on three other books now. I came to Cambodia to process my break-up. I am working on a book-length poem about it, I am writing a book on climate change in Mexico, which is where I live now. And I am writing a sci-fi novel, where I am going back to my mathematical education. So plenty of stuff going on.

The interviewer is the author of ‘Independence Day: A People’s History’.

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